In 2018, the James Webb Space Telescope, a beleaguered project to create a device that could look at the earliest stars in the universe, seemed to be derailed. Again.
The parts and instruments of the telescope were complete, but they needed to be assembled and tested. The launch date was slipping further into the future and costs, already approaching $8 billion, were rising again. Congress, which had provided several major funding sources over the years, was unhappy that NASA was asking for more money.
This led to Gregory Robinson being asked to take over as Webb’s program director.
Then mr. Robinson was the deputy associate administrator for programs at NASA, making him responsible for evaluating the performance of more than 100 science missions.
He said no. “At the time, I was enjoying my job,” he said. Robinson recalled.
Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s assistant scientist, asked him again.
“He had a kind of combination of the two skills,” said Dr. Zurbuchen said of Mr. Robinson. “First, he has seen many projects, including problematic ones. Second, it has the function of building interpersonal trust. So, he can enter the room, sit in the dining room, and when he leaves the dining room, he knows half of the people.”
Finally, Mr. Robinson calmed down. In March 2018, he stepped into the task of getting the telescope back on the road and into space.
“He twisted both of my arms to get Webb,” he said. Robinson said.
His path to this role seemed impossible.
Mr. at NASA Robinson, 62, is a rarity: a black man among the agency’s top executives.
“It’s definitely an inspiration for people to see me in that role,” she said, “and also acknowledge that they can be there.”
He says there are a lot of Black engineers working at NASA now, but “certainly not as many as there should be,” and most of them haven’t risen high enough to be seen by the public, such as Mr. Robinson follows Webb’s release.
“There’s a lot we’re going to try to improve,” he said. Robinson said.
Born in Danville, Washington, in the southern tip of the state, he was the ninth of 11 children. His parents were tobacconists. He attended an all-Black elementary school until the fifth grade, when the school district was finally integrated in 1970.
Learn more about the James Webb Space Telescope
After traveling nearly a million miles to reach a location beyond the moon, the James Webb Space Telescope will spend years observing space.
He was the only one in his family who majored in science and math, heading to Virginia Union University in Richmond on a football scholarship. Later, he transferred to Howard University. He earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Virginia Union and a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Howard.
He joined NASA in 1989, following some of his friends who worked there. Over the years, his jobs included deputy director and deputy chief engineer at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
The Webb assignment came amid bad publicity for the project.
The target date for the launch of specialists was again moved from 2019 to May 2020. NASA created a review board of outside experts to advise on what needs to be done to get Webb to the finish line.
A month later, Mr. Robinson’s tenure, a failed experiment, made it clear how much needed to be fixed.
Spacecraft must survive the powerful vibrations of launch, so engineers test them by shaking them. Embarrassingly, when Webb shook, the screws holding the telescope’s large, fragile sunshield cover came loose.
“It set us back months — about 10 months — just one thing,” he said. Robinson said. The launch date was extended to March 2021 and the price tag increased by another $800 million.
It seemed like a repeat of the incident challenges faced by the Webb project earlier. When the telescope was named Webb in 2002, it still had a projected budget of $1-3.5 billion for a 2010 launch. By the time 2010 arrived, the launch date had moved to 2014, and the estimated cost for the telescope had risen to $5.1 billion. . In 2011, NASA reset the program with a higher budget of no more than $8 billion and an October 2018 launch date after reviews found both the budget and schedule to be unrealistic.
After the reset in 2011, the program seemed to be doing well for several years. “They were knocking down milestones,” he said. Robinson said. “Really good schedule margin.”
But he added: “There are things out there that you don’t see. Nightmares always get you, don’t they?
For screws that break during a shock test, it turns out how much torque should be applied in the engineering drawings. It was up to contractor Northrop Grumman to decide that, and they weren’t tight enough.
“You have to have a specification to make sure it’s right,” he said. Robinson said.
The review board released its report, noting a number of problems and making 32 recommendations. NASA tracked them all, sir. Robinson said.
One of the recommendations was to conduct an audit of the entire spacecraft to identify “embedded problems”—mistakes that occur without anyone noticing.
Engineers checked drawings and specifications. They reviewed purchase requisitions to ensure that what was ordered met specifications and that suppliers provided the correct items.
“Several teams led by the most experienced people were created,” he said. Robinson said. “They really dug up the documents.”
For the most part, the equipment actually matched what was originally designed. Some things did not fit – Mr. Robinson said none of them would have caused a catastrophic failure — and those have been fixed.
Mr. time. Robinson took over as program director, Webb’s schedule efficiency – how the pace of work is measured against what was planned – dropped by about 55 percent, Dr. Zurbuchen said. This was largely the result of avoidable human error.
Dr. Zurbuchen said Webb’s team is full of smart, capable people who shy away from criticism. He Mr. Robinson changes everything. Within months, efficiency reached 95 percent, with better communications and managers more willing to share potentially bad news.
“You needed someone who could gain the trust of the team and figure out what was wrong with the team,” said Dr. Zurbuchen said. “The speed at which he turned this thing around was amazing.”
A number of new problems caused additional delays and increased costs. Some, like the pandemic and problems with the payload bay on the European-made Ariane 5 rocket, were beyond Mr Johnson. Robinson control. Human error also occurred last November, when the clamp that held the telescope to the launcher broke, shaking but not damaging the telescope.
But when the Ariane 5 carrying Webb finally launched at Christmas, everything went smoothly, and the deployment has been smooth sailing ever since.
With initial observations, Webb won’t need a program director anytime soon.
Mr. Robinson proudly says he’s out of a job.
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